A Man and his whistle

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Veteran Basketball Referee still has fun on the court after more than two decades

FORT IRWIN, Calif. ­— When Cletis Brown showed up as a soldier at the National Training Center in 1993, he said he had never thought about being a referee. Brown had played football, basketball and baseball in high school but any other involvement was far from his mind, that is, until someone approached him with a proposition.

“A friend of mine needed help, so I decided to help him and it went from there,” Brown said.

He was only 27 years old then but it didn’t take long for Brown to realize he didn’t mind it and wanted to continue referring youth sports. That was in 1997 and 22 years  and 5,000 games later, he is still on the court (and on the field) with his whistle.

“It was something I enjoyed doing, I said ‘Oh, I enjoy this.’”

Brown retired in 2008 as a Sergeant First Class, then worked for the Central Receiving Point (CRP) for eight years and has been working as a property manager in the Supply Division for the last three years.

He’s been a ref for football, basketball, baseball, soccer, volleyball and even fly football.

Referees often get a bad rap from fans, spectators, coaches or players with disagreements over calls but Brown said when he hears the grunts, growls and complaints from the stands, it doesn’t bother him.

“You hear them but you (shrugs), you just ignore them,” he said.

Brown admits it took him a while to be able to simply block out the fans and focus. In youth sports, he said most conflicts arise when a parent gets upset over a child getting fouled with no call being made. Brown said he doesn’t fire back at spectators or coaches.

“I usually just look and smile.”

Except in February 2019.

“Ok, I did once … I told her I’d have to have her removed from the gym because she was in my ear and kind of irate but it’s okay.” Brown did not actually have the fan removed—in fact, he says he’s never done that.

Song Fields, 11, is a point guard for the Fort Irwin Middle School Wildcats. She said she has had several calls made against her by Brown and other referees but she feels like all of them were justified.

“Yep, because I wasn’t playing my spot, so I got called out on what I did wrong.”

Fields said she thinks the refs are nice and friendly overall.

Brown admits, though, he has caught himself making the wrong call or missing a call.

“You go back and think about what calls you made and say, ‘well, I should’ve made this call, instead of that call,’ you do sometimes.”

Brown was born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina and although he describes himself as a quiet, shy, man of God who just loves to have fun, he said he can also be pretty tough—especially when he used to be a referee for his own children’s games.

“It was a little bit different,” Brown said. “They’d ask, ‘Dad why are you being so strict on me?’”

Brown agreed he was definitely harder on his own children (now 22 and 27 years old) when he used to referee their games.

He’s been married for 27 years and said his family used to come to the games he officiated when they lived on post and gave him a hard time when he may have missed a call.

When asked how much more officiating he has in him, Brown said he doesn’t plan on retiring from sports or his job anytime soon, but he knows there is an end somewhere down the road.

“I don’t know, I don’t think another 22 [years] though.”

Brown said former referees and coaches, along with his fellow officiating staff and score keepers help make the job much easier and he thanks them for all of their help and guidance.

“The kids have fun and as long as the kids are having fun—making sure it’s structured fun, it’s good to go,” Brown said.